The abuse of male authority within evangelicalism comes in many forms, and these days revelations of indiscretions are coming fast and furious. The largest of the national and ecclesiastical scandals have made plain that many—too many—leaders of conservative evangelicalism have a problem with power.
Most recently, Paige Patterson, a prominent leader in the Southern Baptist Convention, was pushed out as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Initially granted what many saw as a golden parachute of a compensated emeritus position, Patterson was later fired from retaining any paid position at the school. Documentary evidence and first-person testimonials, much of it first reported by The Washington Post, described Patterson’s alleged mistreatment of female students seeking his assistance after being sexually assaulted. Patterson’s long-standing reputation for devaluing women’s intellectual and professional contributions, which was bolstered after taped comments surfaced in which he sexualized a young woman in a public sermon illustration, has left him few open supporters. Though he has apologized for his use of inappropriate language about women and denounced all forms of domestic abuse and sexual violence, Patterson’s views of gender—particularly scriptural teachings disregarding women’s authority and autonomy—remain intact.
In this unprecedented cultural moment, some evangelicals have been speaking out against the misuse of traditional gender norms, and those that underpin notions of female purity, as having too often reinforced dysfunctional power dynamics. Men guilty of neglect, assault, and abuse of authority against women are being held accountable and brought before well-lit public scrutiny. Indeed, the spotlight on Patterson continues this week as Southern Baptists hold their annual meeting—a meeting at which he had originally been slated to give a sermon before he withdrew amid the scandal. At least two resolutions up for a vote this week address the role of women in the church.
With the emergence of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, formerly silent and silenced victims have been offered a platform to share their stories. And though not all survivors name evangelical purity culture as a contributing factor, Emily Joy, the originator of #ChurchToo, does just this. In an homage to Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement started more than a decade ago, Joy merged her long-standing critiques of purity culture with Burke’s initiative in order to co-create #ChurchToo with her friend, Hannah Paasch. As a former evangelical and abuse survivor, Joy pulls no punches when identifying the widespread teachings and practices of female sexual purity as the source of the abusive culture of female subordination that pervades evangelical churches. On her website, she writes:
At the root of #ChurchToo stories are patriarchy, male leadership coupled with female submission, purity culture, evangelical personality cult culture, lack of sex-positive and medically accurate sex education, homophobia, and white supremacy. Commit to dismantling these things and addressing these root causes in your faith community today. (Bold in original text.)
Although the moral strictures of sexual purity have been part of American evangelicalism since the late nineteenth century, the particular impulse of contemporary evangelical purity culture was birthed out of the cultural anxieties over sex in the 1980s. The Southern Baptist Convention led the way for the modern-day purity movement with True Love Waits, an initiative developed in the late- 1980s by two youth ministers, Richard Ross and Jimmy Hester. (In 2000, Ross joined the faculty of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Patterson eventually became his boss.) They were tasked with creating an abstinence-focused, sex-education program at the urging of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop. They also recognized that churched teens were no less likely to have sex than the non-churched. They believed national renewal (i.e. the restoration of Christian America) began with calling young people to live a pure life.
In 1994, True Love Waits (TLW) quickly gained national attention and more than 200,000 faithfully committed followers with their first of several large-scale campaigns. Within two years, they would boast numbers in the millions. The roll-out was intentionally grandiose, calling Christ-following teenagers to live a pure and holy life free of guilt, shame, and romantic disappointment. Striving for sexual purity became a moral mandate, mapped onto the adolescent believer’s path to salvation, a path fraught with the dangers of secular temptation, physical pleasure, and immediate gratification.
TLW framed themselves as an oasis, a refuge for adolescents from the threats of secular life. It characterized church life as a community with the highest of moral expectations, but equally secure support systems to protect and accompany young people on their passage to adulthood and heterosexual marriage. TLW, and eventually evangelical purity culture as a whole, provided a clear demarcation: The secular world is fraught with sexual danger and heartbreak, while our world is blessed with sexual safety and the promise of true love.
I have previously explained the emergence of evangelical purity culture (and its meteoric rise to national prominence) as a means by which evangelicals sought and maintained political power. A moral panic fueled by HIV-AIDS and teen pregnancy made groups like TLW appear almost avant-garde in their retro-grade approach to human sexuality. The promise of sexual safety appealed to adults, while that of emotional and sexual fulfillment appealed to the young. Purity culture was a haven, the realization of the evangelical desire to be “set apart” from secular life and safe from the threats therein.
But such analysis belies the internal dynamics within evangelical institutions and communities. More than a decade ago, the first generation of purity pledgers began to marry and become parents, providing them with some distance to examine the impact of the movement on their lives. The numbers of people critiquing the movement, both as former and current evangelicals, continues to increase on a regular basis. A post-purity movement took shape shape as bloggers began reciting a great litany of abuse, shame, and belittlement that accompanied the growing popularity of the purity movement. Women such as Samantha Field, Dianna Anderson, Libby Anne, Sarah Bessey, and groups such as Homeschoolers Anonymous, No Shame Movement, and Thank God for Sex indicate the overwhelming need to address the harm caused by purity teachings and ideologies. Even Joshua Harris, one of the architects of purity culture with the publication of his books on Christian courtship, has taken advantage of this cultural moment to shine the light on his own evolution on the topic.
The resemblance between this post-purity moment and #ChurchToo is not incidental. Both movements confront so-called biblical teachings of women’s subordination. And both recognize that the contemporary purity movement was an in-grown strategy to reinforce this dynamic. Women have been speaking out for a long time about their secondary status within evangelicalism. Emily Joy, creator #ChurchToo, is just one of many women drawing connections between these movements. The same women known for their critiques of the purity movement are now saying #MeToo. For Samantha Field, her critiques of purity culture emerged from a #MeToo story long before the hashtag. Libby Anne is raising provocative questions for other SBC leaders caught off-guard by #ChurchToo. And Sarah Bessey has created threads on her Facebook page to address the cases of Pastors Bill Hybels and Andy Savage. As for Southern Baptists, themselves, more than 1,000 Southern Baptist women signed a petition opposing the sexist remarks made by Paige Patterson. His comments, though, were embedded in a culture of sexism created by the teachings that Patterson and many others have endorsed since the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC.
The work of #ChurchToo cannot be undertaken within evangelical churches without first re-assessing, if not dismantling, the stringent purity culture which remains a prominent feature of youth ministries. Gender inequality, under the guise of theological complementarianism—which asserts men’s authority and women’s subordination as a complementary relationship—remains a mainstay in many conservative churches. Purity ideology, thought laden with rhetoric of female empowerment, articulates an antagonistic stance toward women and genuine efforts at gender justice.
This viewpoint is, incidentally, a significant departure from the earliest purity campaigns. In the late nineteenth century, evangelical purity activists were intent on empowering women and holding men accountable for their sexual sins. Though the purity branch of the women’s movement eventually evolved into the more secularized and medicalized sexual hygiene movement, the goal of female empowerment was nevertheless achieved in the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. These campaigns were led by women seeking access to political power and to creating a single standard of sexual morality. Part and parcel of challenging men’s authority was limiting their ability to commit sexual indiscretions without consequence.
In the contemporary iteration, purity campaigns were also about increased political presence, not for women, but for evangelicalism as a whole and its mostly male leadership. Moral panics over sex education, teen pregnancy, and HIV-AIDS situated evangelicals and their purity teachings in a position of political prominence. The purity movement originated in the same decade that fundamentalist leaders reinstated authoritarianism and gender hierarchies as God-commanded truths. When understood in conjunction with the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention (of which Patterson was a key leader), True Love Waits served to socialize young men and women into a culture of female submission and male authority. Without a sincere commitment to female empowerment and gender equality, purity campaigns became the staging ground for sexual abuse and institutional neglect toward women and girls.
Today, as numerous church bodies and other religious institutions adjust to a reckoning over sexual abuse and injustice, and consider appropriate means of censure and punishment, lay women continue to call abusers and their enablers to account. Some of those discontented with the evangelical purity culture have helped lead the way, using the momentum of the broader #MeToo reckoning to shine a light on inadequate theology and obsolete notions of leadership that undermine an authentic Christianity.
Sara Moslener is a lecturer in the department of philosophy and religion at Central Michigan University. She is the author of Virgin Nation: Sexual Purity and American Adolescence.